Staffing Shortage Solutions
Disability Organization Innovates to Recruit and Retain Quality Employees
BY RACHEL LIEBERMAN
It’s 7:30 am, and the staff at MSS St. Paul, a Minnesota organization providing programs and support to people with intellectual and physical disabilities, is already hard at work. Direct Support Professional (DSP) Enrique Castaño is prepping for the day’s activities: computer time, visits to the YMCA and a local food hall, and exercises in financial literacy.
Many of the 130 adults served by MSS are arriving by bus, popping in and out of the kitchen, arts room, home rooms, garden, and stopping in to say good morning to Castaño or exchange a few jokes. One young woman follows Castaño as he makes his morning rounds, offering several high-fives to everyone she passes.
“I did have a little bit of a challenge at first,” Castaño explains. “It was hard for me to find a way to engage with people, but it was actually the clients who helped me to open up.”
Today is a “programming day,” a new idea implemented by MSS to allow DSPs like Castañoto break from their regular routine and join different clients in alternative activities or design their own programming for clients. Castaño, who usually spends each day in the same room, says, “It’s also an attempt by MSS to improve retention. It’s improved the morale of staff, getting a break from the same routines of performing cares (such as assistance with bathroom, food, meds) all day.”
Castaño is also a fellow at Cow Tipping Press, an organization based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that publishes work by authors with developmental disabilities and, by doing so, aspires to change the way society views disability. (Cow Tipping Press derived its name from a piece by one of its first authors.) Castaño says the fellowship gives him an opportunity to “model more person-centered work,” allowing him to give “more voice” to the clients he works with at MSS “so they can have input in what’s going on.” Outside of the Cow Tipping Fellows’ work, he says, “there’s not always that much progress” in that vein.
Staff retention is a huge challenge for organizations like MSS, especially in the current job market where many employers are experiencing workforce shortages. Organizations providing care and programming for adults with developmental disabilities experience high rates of staff turnover. Partly due to rising demand and stagnant wages, as well as the common perception that this kind of work is temporary, these organizations are constantly struggling to fill positions. As a result, statistics and studies show this can endanger the quality of care these organizations, and the employees who work there, are able to provide.
“Among the disability community and disability services, it’s well known that there’s a workforce shortage,” says Bryan Boyce, the Founder and Executive Director of Cow Tipping Press. “Getting people to even to apply for positions can be tough.” Yet Cow Tipping Press might have the solution, or at least part of it.
In 2018, the Minnesota State Department of Human Services Direct Care/Support Workforce Initiative created a “strategic vision for tackling the crisis in the direct care and support workforce” with seven major recommendations. These recommendations include increasing wages, expanding the work pool, improving training, building job satisfaction, raising public awareness, better utilizing technological solutions, and enhancing data collection.
Boyce, however, took a more creative approach to the solution. This last year, after talking with other organizations in the field of disability services about the challenges they face with staff retention, Boyce launched the Cow Tipping Fellowship with an aim to solve the problem via “reframing the role.”
Boyce says hiring managers in this field feel they’re competing with McDonald’s and Walmart. While he agrees that DSP positions should be paid more, he also sees another solution, one that recognizes that “there’s another talent pool out there, that connecting with them takes managing more innovatively, and maintaining a grounding in disability justice work.”
It’s similar to an AmeriCorps model, in which calls to recruit employees tap into ideals of diversity and social justice, rather than hours and salary. Boyce believes this allows organizations to begin to attract a different profile of applicants than those who are usually working in the service field, such as recent college graduates from a variety of backgrounds who are driven by social equity.
Boyce says he’s seeing results already. “With Cow Tipping Press’s creative writing classes for adults with disabilities,” he explains, “we pretty regularly have more people apply to teach than we can take.”
Cow Tipping Fellows Ally Kann, Christina Brewer, Sohini Ghosh, Aarohi Narain and Enrique Castaño gather over coffee to discuss their experiences.
The new approach is now working to recruit DSPs. In this first year of the program, Boyce is now coaching five fellows—recent graduates from the University of Minnesota, Macalester College in St. Paul and Grinnell College in Iowa. Fellows work 40 hours a week directly as employees of Cow Tipping Press partners MSS, Lutheran Social Services, and Rise, assisting with daily activities like laundry and cooking in group homes, driving, or at job sites. Fellows meet once each month as a group for professional development and to discuss assigned readings on disability history and justice.
By visiting with the fellows at the various sites, checking in with them about their experiences, and providing an environment of support and camaraderie, Boyce hopes to fill in some of the gaps he believes are behind low retention rates at the various organizations. He says, “I’m continuing to figure out how to partner with management at the sites to help them see the untapped potential in the employees. I’m looking to do an even better job at helping organizations to leverage the skills and talents the fellows bring to the table.”
The five Cow Tipping Fellows are completing this inaugural year this month. They all say they have found great value in the program in terms of learning and relationships. “I wanted to make sure I was doing valuable work, and this was a good way to start that,” says Fellow Sohini Ghosh, a Macalester College grad who studied psychology and music. “I’ve met fabulous people—both staff and the people we serve—and developed really important and meaningful relationships with them, as well as the other brains on the team. Everyone in the fellowship group does amazing work, works really hard, and is clearly invested.”
Fellows admit the work can be challenging and exhausting, involving caretaking work some of them never imagined doing, such as assisting with bathroom needs. But they also find the experience to be transformative. “This work has also been really humbling,” says recent University of Minnesota grad Ally Kann. “I’ve been sitting behind a desk writing papers for four years. In this fellowship, you realize that this work is something school never could have prepared you for but is just as challenging and just as important.”
Clients are dropped off in St. Paul at MSS, an organization providing programs and support to people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
Kann, who studied literature and Arabic, adds, “It’s been really nice to be around different perspectives and ideas about this thing that is really personal to me. Growing up having a sister with a disability, I didn’t have a lot of people to relate to in that situation. ”
While the work is refreshingly different from college classes, Boyce challenges fellows with complex reading and discussion, and to continue to be aware of the bigger picture of their day-to-day work.
Fellow Aarohi Narain, a recent Macalester Graduate in International Studies, Japanese, and English Lit says, “My experiences so far have added new layers to my understanding of the world.”
Because the Cow Tipping fellowship emphasizes a “person-first” mindset with its fellows and teachers—an assumption of competence, and a belief in freedom and choice for people with disabilities to live with as much autonomy and control over their own personhood as possible—Boyce believes it’s important to hire people who are willing to take on some of the old norms and assumptions that often limit freedoms and opportunities offered to adults with developmental disabilities. He explains, “We don’t care if someone has never worked with people with disabilities before, we care that our fellows have a belief that disability is a form of identity, that the people they serve are equals, and who are seeking exchange across communities that don’t often interact.”
Fellows say entering into organizations that have certain established norms, and trying newer, perhaps more just approaches to working with people with disabilities, can be hard. Kann shares, “You run into a lot of the people who’ve been in the field for a while, who are more compliant to placing limitations on people with disabilities.”
Castaño says he’s developed a new routine with one of the long-time MSS clients. This young man likes to run, and the staff would often chase him from room to room, trying to control this behavior. “I thought that was funny, watching them all chase him,” Castaño explains. “I began just to run with him, to see where he wanted to go. Now, it is a routine we have. I know who he likes to go visit when he runs. Sometimes we go to the YMCA together and he runs with other people, where it’s considered normal again. I know it helps my body to be active, I think it’s the same for him, he just needs some time to let out his energy. It’s not a ‘behavior’ to be controlled. I think the courses I’ve taken in psychology have helped me to see these things as related to personality, rather than misinterpreted as ‘behaviors’ to be ‘fixed’.”
This morning at MSS, Castaño is carrying around a laundry basket, gathering objects for a game he’ll lead later this afternoon modeled after the television show, The Price is Right. Castaño says it helps clients learn about real-life pricing, spending and budgeting. For example, when he put his cell phone “up for bid “during a recent game, “the guesses ranged from $50 to $150. When I told them it cost $480, people were surprised.”
He continues, “If they’re aware of how the hours they work go toward how much they have to spend, they’ll be able to make better choices to suit their needs.”
Enrique Castaño gathers items that he plans to use in a game with clients, based on the TV show The Price is Right. By helping clients learn what everyday items cost, he teaches them about pricing and budgeting.
A few months back, Castaño partnered with a coworker who also studied psychology to launch a curriculum for their clients focused on mental wellness and mindfulness. The two of them are now building a budgeting and financial curriculum, something Castaño says he realized is necessary for many adults with developmental disabilities because they’re vulnerable to being taken advantage of financially.
Many of the managers at the fellows’ placement organizations have been impressed with their performance. Comments to Boyce have included praise for the fellows’ “energy and dependability,” their “integrity and work ethic,” and have described the fellows as “dedicated, passionate, and industrious.”
Some fellows, such as Christina Brewer, a recent Grinnell English grad, plan to continue working at their sites past the fellowship. Brewer says, “I really enjoy working with these women in the group home and I plan to stay on while I figure out what my next steps are.”
Castaño says he definitely plans to pursue a career in the field. “I’ve enjoyed doing exercise classes with the MSS clients,” he explains, “and, in the future, I plan to go into physical therapy, and specialize in working with people with disabilities.”
Other fellows hope to carry this experience on to other lines of work. Narain, who plans to stay on as an intern with Cow Tipping Press, says, “I’m not sure what my future engagement with the field will be, but I’ll carry what I’ve learned with me wherever I go.”
Whether fellows stay in the field or not, Boyce explains, “If you can give people an employee who’s committed for a year, that’s way better than the average. For comparison, about 50 percent of employees at these organizations quit within their first year.”
Cow Tipping Press has just hired 12 new fellows for the coming year, more than doubling the program. Boyce says optimistically, “I don’t think we’re a silver bullet to the problem, but we’re part of the silver buckshot. Systems are made up of people. New people help create new systems.”
Rachel Lieberman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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